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Be Honest: You Hate Free Basics Because It’s Facebook

By Wayan Vota on January 14, 2016


Yes, it is true. You don’t like Free Basics simply because it is a Facebook initiative. You may feel the need to hide your anger behind flowery language or odd metaphors, but the reality is that you think Facebook is inherently evil and therefore anything it does must be evil. Especially if Mark Zuckerberg personally promotes it.

It’s okay if you admit your dislike. In fact, that’s what you should do. You will be much happier if you would just be honest with yourself, and with everyone else. Then we can debate Free Basics on it’s merits and challenges instead of your gut reactions.

“But wait,” you say, “I’m okay with Facebook, it’s just that Free Basics [insert argument here].”

Please, give your reasons in the comments. Tell us why Free Basics is the worst idea ever. Go on, I’ll wait.

Done? Good. Now that you’re ready to listen, read these three reasons why Free Basics is better than your scorn:


1. Zero-Rated Services Are Not New

Way, way back in 2010, Facebook launched Facebook Zero in 45 countries globally, to give people free access to Facebook on feature phones. Did anyone complain? Nope, we all cheered for feature phone users.

Then in 2012, Wikipedia teamed up with Orange to offer Wikipedia Zero on smartphones in Uganda. This zero-rating of Wikipedia content was exactly the same as Facebook Zero, yet when I called out Wikipedia Zero as an empty gift, I was pilloried by commenters saying things like:

Why can’t we just pat the operator on the back for letting people get access for free. The whole thing is just sort of mind blowing. People are volunteering their knowledge on millions of subjects in hundreds of languages, and giant companies are volunteering their expensive tech to let anyone have access. Bravo.

Next Google jumped on the zero-rating bandwagon with Free Zone in the Philippines and South Africa, giving free access to Gmail, Google Search, and Google+. Did anyone care then? Nope. Not a single byte was raised in protest.


2. Zero-Rating Works

Now why would mobile network operators zero-rate a website? Why would they forgo revenue and let subscribers access very popular websites for free, when they could charge for access instead?

Well, why does any business offer a free sample? To win new customers of course! And zero-rating is a proven way to get more people online, and paying for data services.

In the Philippines, Smart Communications said the half-million users who signed up for its zero-rated introductory service, spent 150% more on average per month than its other subscribers.

When Globe Telecom introduced Facebook Zero, data users on Globe’s network doubled, and the active prepaid mobile data subscriber base leapt from 14% to 25%. Even after their Facebook Zero promotion ended, users continued to join Globe’s network at a 2x rate of the pre-campaign baseline.

Facebook Zero not only increases the number of Internet users in the short run, but zero-rating Facebook, even for a limited time, causes a long-run increase in Internet adoption.

So if you actually want Internet adoption by the next billion, you can either have great free 2G for everyone dreams, keep dreaming Universal Service Funds will work, despite much evidence to the contrary, or accept that zero-rating works, especially zero-rating Facebook access.


3. Net Neutrality is a Red Herring

Over in India, there is much indignation that Free Basics violate net neutrality principles because mobile network operators could be prioritizing zero-rated content over other content. Now only the MNO technicians know if throttling is happening or not, but the concept of zero-rating is fully in line with net neutrality.

Zero-rating doesn’t involve content delivery speed, only what is charged for it. Zero-rating is the exact same concept as a business giving out a free sample to attract more customers.

For example, I personally bought most of you free drinks at ICT4Drinks meetups to entice you to put up with me and receive my emails. Those free drinks were usually limited to the happy hour list at the bar, yet that certainly didn’t stop you from ordering your own drinks or food, or going to other happy hours or restaurants.

Like that free drink, zero-rating doesn’t keep people inside a walled garden. People are free to buy airtime to access other sites. Likewise, other companies are free to set up zero-rating schemes with MNOs too. Facebook certainly isn’t the only company to get zero-rated services from MNOs.

Better yet, Facebook is actively trying to engage local partners to participate. They’ve opened up Free Basics to websites that meet their technical requirements, so others, not just Facebook, can benefit. Of course, we should ask questions about Free Basics, but it doesn’t mean we should dismiss out of hand.


None of That Matters Because Facebook is Evil

Sadly, I know you remain unconvinced. I know you are reading this seething, and saying to yourself, “We must stop Facebook, because… because… It is evil!”

And that could be true. Certainly there are serious data privacy issues inherent with Facebook. It is sucking up all our data, and we feed it terabytes of new data daily. However, every website does it.

We should not single out Facebook for our angst (usually in a Facebook post), and yet let Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and even our own government and employers off the hook. Data is the new oil and we need to find a way we can all profit from development data.

But what really makes otherwise logical people hate Facebook so much, is that they are deeply jealous that Facebook is winning.

For a majority of people, Facebook is the Internet and we’ve known this for years. For most of us, that is a horrible thought. Yet it is also a hypocritical one, as many of us started out thinking AOL was the Internet.

It’s also okay. We should be very happy that a billion people visit Facebook every day. One sixth of the world is learning and exploring the Internet in a safe space, where their friends and family moderate links to the wild Internets of the world.

But don’t tell that to local Internet companies who are trying (and failing) to compete with American technology juggernauts like Facebook, Amazon, and now Netflix. They yell about the need for local technology skills, which is a valid concern. However, don’t let a single one complain about local content.

For as much as you hate on Facebook, it is 100% local content. Remember, Facebook doesn’t produce its own content, you do, each of us in our infinite local contexts.


If So, Then We Are Evil Too

Those of us in the international development context should be careful how hard we hate on Facebook and Free Basics. We may hold up our mission statements and say we are better, but are we really?

Every day, we give away free goods and services in communities around the world, usually only after recipients give us their personal data, just like Facebook. We do this to excite community members to buy these services on their own, just like Free Basics. Yet in giving away free products, we distort local markets and undercut local providers of similar products. And here we are accusing Facebook of doing the same.

In the end, Free Basics gets more people online – 6 million new users in 14 months in the Philippines. No ICT4D initiative has accomplished that, ever. So what if that benefits Facebook in the near term?

Stop hating the player and change the game.


Filed Under: Featured, Thought Leadership
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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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34 Comments to “Be Honest: You Hate Free Basics Because It’s Facebook”

  1. Subir Dey says:

    While you do raise a valid point that Zero rating isn’t new and I was only familiar with the wikipedia zero project, when it was launched in some way in India, I am still a little biased towards wikipedia because of the free access to knowledge that wikipedia is supposed to champion.
    One of the major problems with free basics (and I have the same/similar problems with a few other initiatives) is how the provider or operator shuts out startups or just any company that is unable to come on board with them for various reasons. We have had that problem with Airtel some time ago, http://www.medianama.com/2014/12/223-airtel-net-neutrality-ogle-throttling/.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Did you know that Free Basics includes Wikipedia? Or that Facebook is one of the main traffic drivers to Wikipedia? On both counts, if you like Wikipedia, you should love Free Basics.

      Free Basics doesn’t shut out start-ups. They do require websites to load fast on 2G – so no video, Flash, javascript, and other technical requirements, that honestly, more websites should be considering anyway.

    • We’re a startup that has a version of our app on Free Basics, and the Facebook team welcomed us with open arms to the platform. You just give them links to your site, they test that it meets the requirements, and that’s it. As Wayan suggested, the prohibitions against Flash and javascript are more like a breath of fresh air on the internet.

  2. Josh Woodard says:

    Great post, Wayan. I wouldn’t call Facebook or development organizations evil, but I do agree that both can potentially distort the market through their sheer size relative to competitors. And it is important for us to confront the hypocrisy of our actions vs. our words.

    I do think that is it perfectly acceptable and reasonable for people to have a healthy cynicism of Facebook’s intentions, and even if those intentions are pure, for us to question whether we want to give so much control of our online lives to one company. For the average person, I don’t think it is jealousy of Facebook, although that might certainly be true for other tech firms. But of course, this is nothing new.

    I don’t want to write a treatise in response, so I’ll just make a pitch and say if anyone is interested in continuing the conversation at an upcoming Tech Salon in Bangkok , let me know.

  3. Carlo Azzarri says:

    I don’t hate Facebook, Google or other players. I hate the fact that we are measuring “our” success by the number of internet subscribers or surfers. And, what’s worse is that we are offering free lunch in the hope that kids in developing and poor countries buy dinner. I found this concept and bait marketing immoral, as in most cases they would refrain from buy food (and perhaps nutritious food) in exchange of some hours of internet (starving for dinner!). That’s what we want!? Our parameter of success can’t be how many people are connected to the net, this is a disgracefully myopic view of the world.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Interesting point, Carlo. So would you want all Internet access to be free? Or should poor people be restricted from paying over a % of their income on Internet access? Or just banned from online activity until they were rich enough?

      Those last two options sound very paternalistic, and good luck with the first one. It sounds like Steve Song’s dream.

      • Carlo Azzarri says:

        Wayan, I don’t think Steve Song’s is a dream. It’s just around the corner, but big players are resisting because it won’t be profitable (enough) for them. And with Free Basics they are showing off as philanthropists, while we know they are not. If they were, they would offer free low bandwidth to everybody, as they can surely afford it.

  4. I think Wayan’s last section nails it– the dev community is mostly in the business of giving out free stuff but somehow we’re above the efforts of a private company doing that. The fact is, much of the content we consume on the web, including the ICTWorks site where we’re having this conversation, is not free as it is being subsidized by someone who wants your attention. My guess is that dev people are upset about Free Basics because Facebook has a hundred times the scale of the most successful ICT4D ‘intervention’ and doesn’t know or follow all the rules that ICT4D people sit around making up for themselves in conferences.

  5. Ashwin says:

    I am very impressed and pleasantly surprised to have the voices in my head worded perfectly in your article about Free Basics. Thank you. Your sentiments need to get into the heavily numbered rigid and hateful minds right now!

  6. Mike Klein says:

    I have no issue with Facebook, Google or any other service provider. This includes ISPs. They’re just that, services providers. If I’m not interested in a service, or their stance on a particular issues, I look elsewhere. I also have no issue with zero rating. I have faith that, just like AOL and it’s “walled garden” back in the 90’s, competitive pressures will eventually win out and companies limiting user access will pay for the foley in terms of revenue.

    My problem is when zero rating becomes codified in law under the guise of Net Neutrality. This stands to create an environment where regulation allows government to determine which content should be zero-rated. This is censorship, pure and simple. Domestically, here in the States, this discussion is also taking place. The likes of AT&T’s have begun rolling out “sponsor data” initiatives, which involves third-party companies paying AT&T to have their service be exempt from the company’s arbitrary usage caps. Again, that’s fine, I have no issue when we’re only discussing AT&T and it’s competitors. I’ll go elsewhere if I don’t like the service provider.

    Add regulation to the mix, however, and the situation changes markedly. It creates an unholy alliance between service providers and government (if you find this statement to be cynical just look at what recently came to light following the release of the Snowden files). So, while I have no issue with zero-rated service in principal, I do worry that it opens the door to censorship down the line. This may be hyperbole for most of the Western world, however, that’s not the case in many developing countries – particularly in countries where government controls the sole internet service provider. What then is the difference between zero-rating a service and censorship?

  7. Aaron Dibner-Dunlap says:

    Wayan –

    Good article calling out the hypocrisy with being pro-dev-industry (which, let’s remind ourselves, is also comprised mostly of privately held, for-profit companies) but anti-others. However, there are two big fallacies here that shouldn’t go unrecognized.

    First, you misrepresent net neutrality. Free Basics, and every other gateway of its type, is BY DEFINITION violating the concept of net neutrality because it treats some traffic differently than others – even if the throttling issues are a bugaboo, you can’t claim that providing free access to one site and not to another is net-neutral. So let’s start by acknowledging that this doesn’t embody net neutrality, and then ask two important questions: one, is net neutrality always a good idea? and two, why is are we fighting for it in some markets and against it in others?

    Second, the justification of “everybody else is doing it” is a logical fallacy. We have companies of all kinds making forays into brand new contexts with little regulatory precedent and unique ethical concerns. Just because it’s commonplace doesn’t mean it’s right — seen The Big Short yet? We shouldn’t refrain from questioning one party because they are complicit with others – though I agree with you that we should be asking ourselves why FB is such an easy target. It’s also OK for us to simultaneously engage with these platforms ourselves while questioning their motives. I think you acknowledge this later in the post.

    Despite this, I do think free access to FB and other sites is a good thing, but I also applaud Indian activists for making the case for true net neutrality. I’m the first to admit I don’t have a solution, but that doesn’t delegitimize skepticism.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Arron, you are conflating two different concepts when you talk net neutrality and zero-rating. Net neutrality is the idea that all content is treated equally – packet A is not preferred over packet B. That is totally different that pricing bandwidth differently.

      Bandwidth is always variably priced. You and I pay different than businesses, who pay different than government. Comcast charges different than AT&T.

      In the analog world, we see this as USPS media mail (same speed, different price) and 1-800 numbers (same call, different price). In the digital world, T-Mobile offers free Facebook and free music downloading – all in line with net neutrality.

      • Aaron Dibner-Dunlap says:

        Wayan –

        I agree with you that net neutrality means that packet A should not be preferred over packet B. We disagree on the meaning of “preferred”.

        Zero rating and net neutrality are not mutually exclusive concepts – in fact, they go hand in hand. In 2014, Chile found that zero-rating schemes violated its net neutrality laws. I am not alone when I say that zero rating conflicts with principles of net neutrality.

        Just because T-Mobile is launching its zero-rated services does not mean they are going unscrutinized (see EFF), though I have yet to hear of a legal challenge. Even the FCC has acknowledged that zero-rated plans fall into a regulatory grey zone.

      • Samhir Vasdev says:

        Hi folks – love this discussion and always pleased to hear the other side of an argument that, as Wayan says, seems to be heavily one-sided against Free Basics.

        Regarding this specific question of the “two different concepts” of zero-rating and net neutrality, however, it’s just inaccurate to argue that Aaron is “conflating the two”. The truth is, there is no consensus around whether ZR violates net neutrality. In fact, just ask the governments of Chile, Finland, Netherlands, Iceland, Norway, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Japan, all of which have banned ZR on the basis of its violation of net neutrality rules.

        Our own lovely FCC also admits it does now know whether zero-rating violates net neutrality. In its Open Internet order last year, the commissioners express “mixed views” about whether ZR violates net neutrality roles, recognizing that sponsored data plans (their term for ZR) could be a “harmful form of discrimination” that could “monetize artificial scarcity”. In fact, the only part of that Order which explicitly ruled that sponsored data plans have nothing to do with net neutrality comes in the official dissenting opinion from Commissioner Pai (who used to be Verizon’s general counsel, so no surprise there. But the incestuous relationship between FCC and the telcos they regulate is a discussion for a different time…)

        Anyways, this is an awesome subject and I urge us to avoid accusing anyone of conflating the two concepts as if there is a clear-cut definition and delineation between them. I know it’s always more compelling to choose sides, but in this case I believe “the jury is still out” is a valid and healthier contribution to the discussion. Thanks again for a great post.

        • Samhir Vasdev says:

          edit: “Our own lovely FCC also admits it does *not* know…”

        • Wayan Vota says:

          Nice list of countries there. All 8 have really high internet adoption rates, and are pretty much done trying to get their populations to adopt the Internet.

          I think the context of the 19 countries with Free Basics (which is just one form of zero-rating) might be a little different. I don’t see Zambia, Guatemala, Indonesia dealing with the same issues as Japan, Finland, or even Chile. The Least Connected Countries often are very focused on reducing price barriers and promoting quick utility as a way to get people online.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      I am all about in-depth criticism and we should be critical about Facebook (as with any other). What I am disappointed by is the froth of anti-Free Basics just because it is Facebook. Where is the angst around Wikipedia Zero or Google Free Zone?

  8. ALLLLL of this. I think perhaps your most eloquent post yet. I agree and as some people say, zero-rating may not be the same thing as net neutrality, but until more people line up to successfully bring the poor online, I agree that it is just hypocrisy and paternalism dressed up as doing good for the base of the pyramid/protecting the poor from the Evil Empire. Facebook is doing what so many haven’t, won’t, can’t… They’re at least starting while others merely pontificate!

    • Well said, Ronda. And it may well be that zero rating violates one definition of net neutrality that was developed by the technorati, but they have plenty of cheap internet access from which to develop their theories to ‘protect’ the less privileged. Poor people know better than most that something free is often inferior or comes with a catch, and are able to make their own decision about whether to accept a free, but limited product.

  9. Maja says:

    Very well put, Wayan!

  10. Ravi Krishna says:

    I dont hate Facebook or Free Basics, I was worried that whole Facebook campaign was at trying to get support for “Free Basics” to permit differential pricing in TRAI’s Consultation Paper on Differential Pricing for Data Services. Date of Release : 09/12/2015
    Free Basics is not about Differential Pricing for Data Services. It is about giving limited access to Internet for free. To achieve this goal, there is no need to try to change the way data pricing is done. This was the critical mistake Facebook made. (http://www.dnaindia.com/money/report-trai-facebook-spar-over-responses-to-consultation-paper-2165203) To understand the issues involved & as how most Indian’s opposed to Differential Pricing for Data see the issue please read the following

    again I am stressing, I have nothing against Facebook or Free Basics….

  11. Edmund Resor says:

    Actually, I like it because Free Basic it works with Facebook and because it works on many plain old, inexpensive, feature phones. Facebook is negotiating on behalf of its members to get a better deal for them on what they are already paying for phone service and text messages.

    Facebook’s high number of users makes Free Basic valuable. Metcalf’s Law, the value of a network is proportional to the number of people (with whom you want to communicate) that are connected to it.

    Most of all I trust poor people to decide what is good for them and how to use it. The ads they see on Free Basic won’t be the first ads they every see. They don’t need you and me to teach them caveat emptor.

    Messaging family members still provides more benefits to poor people than everything else we do. (Radio was there before most of us got started.) I learned the importance of messaging starting phone companies in Eritrea, Somalia, and Somaliland. Messages and money transfer by two-way short wave radios, and before that carried by messages, existed long before our phone companies, but phones and Facebook can help with the use of the money. Telegrams and money transfer preceded phones it most countries in the world.

    People used to send text messages not because they were cheap, but because the price was fixed, and they were store and forward and had pretty good reliability and acknowledgement. SMS traffic used to be the highest margin traffic for most carriers in terms of $/byte, and it was easy to handle than voice because it was store and forward.

    Poor people also know how to save money with free WiFi. Why to do you think they buy smartphones and not go broke using them? WhatsApp and WiFi.

  12. Adam Lane says:

    Very nicely described. I’ve always wondered if any of the activists have ever asked the offline people (which cannot be done through an online survey/petition) that they are trying to protect what they want – has anyone done this or seen any data?

    Does this come down to a false choice of “protecting the start-ups” vs “providing internet for the poor”?

    A false choice of course, because there can be other options, and indeed, it should be for a start-up to provide a better option to a mobile operator which is better for the start-up, the poor, and the operator and then it will overtake free basics. So instead of complaining about free basics, shouldn’t those critics instead create (and bring to market) something better?

  13. Timo Luege says:

    Here’s a spontaneous thought on why some people might have the impression that zero-rating content is getting preferential treatment: is it possible that, since this content is requested by more users, zero-rated content is more likely to be in the ISP’s cache than other content? That would translate in zero-rated content being available faster, but without there being a malicious intent. Just a thought,

  14. Francoise mukuku says:

    Freebasics is not interet. it is just a platform with some specs of a online service but not much, it distort the very idea of internet to new comers, it create second class users, it doens take into account that internet is a common good, therefore evrybody should be treated the same in accessing it sepcially if you think that 60 percents of the people using freebasics sign up for the full facebook, why don’t you just offer it to them in the first place. I cna go on and on

  15. Wayan Vota says:

    Congratulations to all the Facebook haters. India’s offline poor will now have no bread till they can afford cake: http://www.ictworks.org/2016/02/09/trai-to-indias-poor-let-them-eat-cake/